On Thursday, Kerry chaired a special session of the U.N. General Assembly, during which he praised Israeli and Palestinian leaders for their “courageous decision to try to return to final-status talks.”
State Department officials who briefed reporters on his effort last week said the goal is intensive talks over about nine months. The agreement would set West Bank borders and include promises about Israel’s security once it no longer occupies the West Bank.
Although most polls show that a majority of Israelis support the peace process, releasing prisoners is unpopular across the political spectrum.
“From time to time, prime ministers are called on to make decisions that go against public opinion — when the matter is important for the country,” Netanyahu said in the open letter. He added: “It seems to me that it is very important for the State of Israel to enter into a diplomatic process.”
The prime minister said dramatic change in the region — in Egypt, Syria and Iran — create not only challenges but also “considerable opportunities for us” to strike a deal with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu stressed that although he agreed to release prisoners — and to do so only after talks begin — he rejected a Palestinian demand for a freeze on new construction in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
According to Israeli media, Netanyahu told Kerry that over the next nine months, as many as 1,000 new units may be approved for construction in West Bank and East Jerusalem settlements.
Netanyahu was silent on a third Palestinian demand — that negotiations about borders for a future Palestinian state begin with the pre-1967 armistice lines.
Qadura Fares, president of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, welcomed the prisoner release as “the right decision for negotiations.”
“It will only help to create an atmosphere of calm. It shows that the state of Israel really does want peace,” he said.
Fares warned, however, that the prisoners must be released to their homes — that a prisoner who hails from Ramallah in the West Bank, for example, not be expelled to the Gaza Strip.
The prisoners have been held since before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords, which created interim and limited self-
government for the Palestinians and called for the Israeli military’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.
Because the prisoners’ crimes date to the 1980s and 1990s, in an era before suicide bombing became a widespread Palestinian tactic, the attackers used molotov cocktails, knives, guns and grenades. Many of the attackers were members of Abbas’s Fatah party, and many of their targets were Israeli soldiers.